Stories from Molenbeek, the ‘terrorist centre of Europe’

Michael Petrou reports from the Brussels neighbourhood, where he finds evidence of radicalization alongside the smallest sprouts of hope.

By: /
October 14, 2016
A woman walks with her daughter in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, Belgium, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Salah Abdeslam came to this run-down but still almost stately-looking neighbourhood in Brussels after helping fellow jihadists slaughter 130 people in Paris last fall, and then he hid unmolested among his inhabitants.

It is thought Abdeslam drove some of the Paris assailants to the Bataclan theatre in the city’s gentrifying 11th arrondissement, where they murdered 89 concert-goers who had come to watch the band Eagles of Death Metal. Abdeslam got a ride to Brussels and moved from flat to flat, once evading police by sprinting across rooftops while a colleague died shooting at officers to cover his escape. 

When Abdeslam was finally caught, he was found here, in his childhood neighbourhood of Molenbeek. Not far from where he was captured, some six months later, a man bustles his toddler daughter out the door of a walk-up apartment. A message scrawled in French with black magic marker can be seen on the wall beside the door: 

Fuck the Bataclan.


Fuck Charlie.

Charlie is Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper attacked by Islamists in January 2015. They killed 11 cartoonists, columnists and others, including a police officer as he lay wounded on the street outside. One of the attackers was heard to yell: “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad.” Muhammad, along with Jesus, Jews, drowning migrants and pretty much anyone else, was a target of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ irreverent and often juvenile satire.

Abaoud is, or was, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of the November 2015 Paris attacks at the Bataclan, who died in a police raid on a Paris suburb a few days after the massacre. Molenbeek was his home, too.

The doorway graffiti are a defiant homage to three acts of mass murder. When a visiting journalist lifts a cellphone to capture the image, Christophe Devriendt protests.

“You take only one photo, and it’s of that?” he asks.  

Devriendt is offended. A music journalist with a gold barbell through the bridge of his nose, the long-time resident of Molenbeek has taken it upon himself to show visitors the sunnier sides of its streets as a member of the non-profit Brussels Greeters. For no pay and with tireless energy, he leads a client through newly-restored playgrounds and empty parks full of weeds that push through old cobblestones.

Allez, this was a factory. Now it is an open-air museum. Look at this machine. It’s rusty but here, you see, is where the steam would drive the pistons.” 

Allez, this path, what does it remind you of?” He points to a curved line of sedimentary rock artfully embedded in the pavement.  

“A stream, yes? There is a real stream running beneath the ground. It still makes things unstable. That’s why that building is collapsing.”

Devriendt says he wants to be a “counter-weight” to the most common stories about Molenbeek, which has been dubbed the terrorist centre of Europe. He has his work cut out for him. Belgium has sent more citizens, per capita, to join the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq than any other country in Western Europe. About 400 have gone in total, and many come from this neighbourhood of fewer than 100,000.

Thomas Renard, an analyst at Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, speaks of a snowballing effect on radicalization. Recruitment happens by kin networks. “You’d see almost entire buildings being radicalized,” he says of Molenbeek.

Some who went to Syria returned. Others, inclined to go, stayed. In addition to Abaaoud and Abdeslam, three of the November Paris attackers called Molenbeek home. So did the man who murdered four people at the Brussels’ Jewish Museum in May 2014. The gunman who surely would have killed many on a train to Paris last year had he not been stopped by American tourists was also a product of Molenbeek. 

Moroccan migrants moved into the neighbourhood two generations ago when it was home to industry and, it seemed, a future. Now unemployment is rife. The streetscape is an odd mix of Islamic austerity and more secular scofflawism. Long beards and short trousers are common, but so is the smell of marijuana.

For all of Devriendt’s efforts, it doesn’t seem a cheerful place. And then, crammed between apartment buildings that have bikes, old lamps and cardboard boxes stuffed on to tiny balconies, appears a swath of green: vines, tomato plants and wooden planter boxes with words like “L’Espoir” (French for ‘Hope’) dabbed on them in bright paint.

Mokbul Abdou, a retired bus driver from Casablanca, volunteers at the community garden. He says the city got it started and paid for seeds. Volunteers do the rest.

“They see others with fancy cars. They want one, but they don’t want to work for it,” he says, explaining criminality in the neighbourhood. “When I was young, we were afraid of parents and respected old people.”

Abdou was educated by priests in Morocco and thinks it would be a good idea for students in Molenbeek. “Why not?” he asks. “They’d have respect.”

Abdou says those from Molenbeek who have joined the Islamic State are not motivated by religion. “Me and le monsieur,” he says, pointing to his companion across the table from his in the garden’s tiny shed, “we go to the mosque and we never see those guys.”

It seems Abdou is proud of what he’s helped build here. He points to tile work on the garden walls showing a church and mosque side-by-side. But, although he’s been in Molenbeek for 40 years, he doesn’t want to stay. He’d like to move somewhere outside the city where there is more space and less concrete, and maybe a view of the ocean.